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The Marked Individual

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Missouri’s freshman senator Josh Hawley has made a political and philosophical splash since he took office last year.

Philosophically, Hawley has tried to revive in America a conservative case for the role of community and our local institutions against what he calls the myth of the “Promethean self.”  The Promethean self “creates her own reality, her own truth,” he said in an ambitious speech recently. She forges her own meaning. And this effort at self-creation is a solitary business. The demands of community too often get in the way.”

This philosophical critique is what informs Hawley’s populist political rhetoric, in which he pits the struggling communities of the American middle against the class of coastal disciples of Prometheus. And one of his targets has been Silicon Valley.

He chastises Silicon Valley’s titans for their insipid business models, targeting kids with addictive pay-for-gameplay, and for their selective censorship of conservative voices, censorship that perhaps shouldn’t be allowed in businesses that benefit from being regulated as neutral platforms. He targets them for their cooperation with the Chinese government.

But I think that for Hawley this distrust of Silicon Valley goes down to the philosophical level as well. After all, what is social media but an abstracted world, facilitated conversations and social performances that have been exfiltrated from a real, existing social context? Big Internet provides powerful illusions that the Promethean self-creation is truly possible.

All of this should please someone like me. I’ve been arguing for a decade that conservatives needed to pay more attention to the function of communities. My own book from last year specifically rejects what it calls “the myth of liberation” which encourages us to believe we can create our selves. In the place of this myth, I tried to build a bridge between family and national identity, one that grounds us and gives us a role in a home, and a homeland around it.

But caring about the American nation means I can’t help but notice that “the individual” is one of America’s inherited romantic archetypes. The American mythology of self-invention and reinvention cannot be extirpated in its entirety as a mere philosophical error. And it cannot withstand sustained rebuke outside a few relatively small circles, filled with creaky conservatives like me.

Our history brims with the frontiersman and the immigrant who leave a home and strike out for some new adventure, building a new home and a new life for themselves. I would say, as a conservative, that this mythology has to be elevated and channeled by great works of art, and even by statesmen, for the good of the commonweal. But we can’t just get past us.

Hawley is surely correct that Silicon Valley’s products conduce to a sort of Promethean delusion. And that’s something worth opposing. But, at the same time, Silicon Valley is a new kind of enclosure movement: It’s closing another dimension of the American frontier. It forbids self-reinvention. Helen Andrews described something of this in her account of how viral outrages seem to follow people throughout their lives because of Google and the Internet.

She recounted how a man, Geoffrey Weglarz, had been caught on video throwing a sandwich back at a pregnant server. Weglarz was at the time struggling through divorce and unemployment. But the viral rage the video inspired drove him into hiding. He tried changing his name to escape the permanent record that Google had made for him, one available to any employer or prospective second wife. He killed himself in a parked car and wasn’t discovered for a week. If anyone needed American individualism — the chance to pick up, move, and rebuild a life out West— it was Geoffrey Weglarz. But this was nearly impossible in an age of total information awareness.

America needs stronger communities, and Hawley is right to tilt hard against a naked and self-seeking individualist streak among American elites. But America loses something essential about itself when it no longer has a frontier — a place further to the West, geographically or metaphorically — where men who are repenting of their sins, or running from ugly fate, can start over again and contribute to a community that is grateful to have a reinvented individual as its neighbor.

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